Hurricanes & Lightning Series Preview: Goalies, Special Teams and An X-Factor

Fresh off of their six-game, first-round defeat of the Nashville Predators, the Carolina Hurricanes are now switching their focus onto their final divisional matchup — the defending-champion Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning, of course, are also coming off of a six-game, first-round victory over the Florida Panthers, and were clearly the superior team in what many thought would be a tighter series. The Hurricanes are no strangers to defeating defending Cup winners in the playoffs, as they did with the Washington Capitals back in the first round of 2019. 

Through the eight-game season series in the regular season between Carolina and Tampa, it was pretty evenly split. Both sides had a 4-3-1 record — each winning four, and each amassing nine points. It was quite apparent while watching those games that, this series is a battle of two pretty evenly matched teams, and a lot of it will come down to which side executes their game plan better, and makes fewer mistakes. Let’s get into some things to watch, pivotal matchups inside the series, and some potential deciding factors.

Speed and Skill

It doesn’t take a professional hockey eye watching these teams to identify almost instantly that both rosters are built primarily on speed and skill.  Both teams were in the top-10 of NHL goal scoring, with both of them averaging over three goals per game throughout the 56-game regular season. Tampa did manage to out-score the Hurricanes by two goals, and did so without superstar forward Nikita Kucherov, who’s now healthy and has returned to their lineup.

There’s a ton of similarities between each team’s forward lineup. You can have a look at Tampa’s lineup here. Their structure is nearly identical to the Hurricanes’ — they both have a top six full of offensive stars, a third line that’s a nightmare to play against, and a fourth line full of size and energy. 

Mostly recently in the playoffs, Tampa has had Kucherov and Ondrej Palat on their first line centered by Brayden Point, while Steven Stamkos has been on their second line with Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn. Obviously — and no disrespect to Nashville — but that top-six group is miles better than the Predators’, and a lot of focus will be on Jordan Staal and his wingers to successfully frustrate and slow the offensive output of that group. On the back end, Jaccob Slavin will also be critical, but I’m thinking that the pairing of Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce will be instrumental in neutralizing Tampa’s attack.

Jaccob Slavin Carolina Hurricanes
Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On the offensive side, the Canes’ forwards will face a tough defensive group. They’re going to need players like Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Martin Necas to control zone entries with their speed, and hold onto possession. The Lightning’s defensive group are a very rugged and physical bunch, so I’m not convinced that the Hurricanes will want to rely on their chip-and-chase strategy, considering the size mismatch. 

Another big factor in the series will be if the Hurricanes can get more offensive production out of Andrei Svechnikov and Nino Niederreiter, specifically. The series will be a battle, and it’s seemingly the perfect environment for both of these guys to elevate in. Both of these players are at their best when they’re engaged physically, and they’ll both be key toward establishing a forecheck on their respective lines. They were both held goalless by Nashville after Game 1, and the Hurricanes absolutely need some offensive production from them if they’re going to get this done.

Special Teams

The power play vs. penalty kill matchup between these two teams could eventually decide the winner of the series, as both teams rely so heavily on their ability to win the special teams battle. During the regular season, the Hurricanes had the NHL’s second-best power-play percentage, and were third on the penalty kill. The Lightning, meanwhile, finished ninth and fourth, respectively. It’s a battle of two top-10 units, and will undoubtedly play a major role in each game.

In the Nashville series, the Hurricanes killed off 23 of the 26 penalties they took. Their 88.4 percent suppression rate in that regard was actually a higher percentage than their second-ranked unit was during the season (85.2 percent). This penalty-kill unit is a group that’s fully confident in their abilities right now, although the Preds’ 23rd-ranked power play wasn’t nearly on the same level that Tampa’s is. Regardless, if the Canes can continue to swarm and play with pressure, tight gaps and clog the middle of the ice, they’ll really frustrate the Lightning’s stars.

The penalty kill will need to be tough, as Tampa’s power play was firing on all cylinders against Florida’s 17th-ranked penalty kill in the first round. The Lightning converted on eight of their 19 opportunities, which is a ridiculous 42 percent conversion rate. A huge part of that success has obviously has been the return of Kucherov, and his presence makes that team arguably the most dangerous in the league on the man-advantage. This will be an amazing battle to watch.

On the other hand, the Hurricanes’ power play looks so up-and-down for a group that ranks so highly, and it’s honestly remarkable. The unit didn’t have a banner series against Nashville, but they scored a huge goal in the second period of Game 6 that ultimately saved the game for them, and swung momentum back in their favor. Hopefully that’ll give the group some confidence heading into a series where they’ll need to capitalize as much as possible, against a penalty-kill unit led by Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The most important part of playing winning hockey is controlling the special teams battle, and this series will be no exception to that rule. With how tight the matchup figures to be at even-strength, this is a series that could be won (or lost) by the power play of either team.

Goaltending Duel

Goaltending is unquestionably going to have a major part in the way this series plays out. With how strong both teams are offensively, it’s going to come down to which goalie does a better job at bailing their team out of defensive breakdowns. For Alex Nedeljkovic, he can make a huge statement league-wide about his talent if he can manage to keep pace with Vasilevskiy, who’s undoubtedly one of the league’s top netminders.

Alex Nedeljkovic Carolina Hurricanes
Alex Nedeljkovic, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

At this point, there’s no doubt that Nedeljkovic has won the crease for the Hurricanes. Even with potential fatigue at hand, I can’t see the team turning to Petr Mrazek or James Reimer for a start, even if only to give Ned a rest. Reimer hasn’t played in a month, and while Mrazek has had a great season, injuries robbed him of key reps and it’s hard to imagine him being in top-game shape right now. The Hurricanes will rightfully live and die by Nedeljkovic.

And there’s a lot of reason for optimism in that. He has played some of his best hockey against the Lightning this season, with his first career shutout coming against them back on Feb. 20. In his three starts against them, he was 2-1, allowing just three goals on 78 shots — a .961 save percentage — and played some really inspired hockey. If he can match that success and, at-worst, just keep pace with Vasilevskiy, the Canes will be in a really strong spot. He has proven he can steal games for the team.

A Potential X-Factor

For the Predators, a big part of their group staying competitive in the series was through the play of Erik Haula, who was involved in almost everything they did successfully. He was a thorn in the Hurricanes’ side and played the villainous role really well. A lot of his impact had to due with his stint with the team and knowing the ins-and-outs of how they play, and the Hurricanes have a certain someone who can potentially fill that exact same role against his former Lightning team.

That player is Cedric Paquette. Now, he has been dealing with a lower-body injury for the past few weeks, and hasn’t played since April 27. Considering his role, though, if he’s healthy, he could potentially be a real difference maker in a fourth-line role. Having won the Cup with Tampa last year, he knows that group really well. After arriving in Raleigh, he scored two of his three goals for the Hurricanes against them, and had some of his best showings against his former team.

Cedric Paquette Tampa Bay Lightning
Cedric Paquette, Tampa Bay Lightning (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

He’s a guy that could really annoy Tampa on the ice, and should be considered as a depth piece if he’s cleared to play. The biggest question would be who would come out of the lineup for him; the entirety of the Hurricanes’ bottom-six has been good. Steven Lorentz has been fantastic and very active as the 4C, and has earned his spot in that role. For me, the only two players who you could realistically take out right now are Warren Foegele or Jesper Fast. Foegele has had a good series overall, and has gotten stronger by the game. Fast has been fine, but hasn’t contributed much to the second power-play unit, and has probably been the least noticeable of the Hurricanes’ forwards.

It obviously depends on Paquette’s status, but I wouldn’t be opposed to swapping him in for Fast, at least for a game, and seeing how it goes. He could add a real dimension of pestiness to the Canes’ fourth line. At the end of the day, I hate the thought of messing with a winning lineup, but that sort of a move could really benefit the team and provide a massive swing in the mental battle out on the ice.

Can They Do It?

There’s two things I’ve learned over my 15-plus years as a Hurricanes supporter. First and foremost, never count them out. They’ve thrived on overcoming adversity at times over the years, and head coach Rod Brind’Amour will surely have them ready for war. Secondly, never get your hopes too far up. I still have PTSD from the Kirk Muller and Bill Peters eras, and while the current Hurricanes are a totally different team from top to bottom, misery remains etched into my memory.

In all seriousness and objectivity, though, yes. I do believe the team can win this series, and they’ll have a very real chance to do so if they can establish their game plan and flawlessly execute it. With teams that are so evenly matched stylistically, a lot will come down to the little things within a hockey game — things like zone exits, neutral zone coverage and rebound control from both the goalies and the defenders. The Hurricanes will also need their star players to produce like… star players.

Sebastian Aho Carolina Hurricanes
Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As they did against Nashville, they’ll need to make sure that when they bend, they don’t break, which is a major reason why they’ve come up short against the Boston Bruins during each of the last two playoffs. The optimist in me believes that the team has used those instances to adjust, and won’t repeat past mistakes. With Tampa’s firepower, the Hurricanes need to do everything they can to withstand the onslaught of offensive pressure. If the Lightning get too settled in and start getting comfortable with what they’re doing offensively, it’ll be really hard for Carolina to overcome that.

That said, these Canes have proven that they aren’t afraid of anybody, and are out to prove they hold up both physically and defensively against any team in this league. They held up wonderfully against Nashville’s physical edge, and that was super inspiring. Ultimately, they’ll need to come out on top on special teams, they’ll need Nedeljkovic to be top tier (as he has been), and they’ll need to take advantage of their home crowd at PNC Arena. If they can execute that, then they can definitely emerge from this series.

Prediction: Canes in 7.

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